It's "magic time" at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel. That's what director Carleton Fitzgerald calls the three hours before the opening-night curtain goes up on his new show at the theater across the street. A bumpy night awaits Fitzgerald and his theatrical cohorts, whose new production may, or may not, "Light Up the Sky."
Although Broadway, and theater in general, have changed a good bit since 1948, Moss Hart's backstage comedy is still fresh, fast, funny and candid about the people in that dream world behind the footlights.
The style of Hart's classic is faithfully maintained in this sharp staging by Chris Hart, the playwright's son, at West Coast Ensemble. He doesn't allow his company to make the usual mistake of going overboard for "period." He keeps his characters realistically contemporary to the time, which makes them ageless.
Hart also has a keen eye and ear for the balance of performances. Michael Laskin is most memorable in his powerhouse portrait of rough-and-tumble producer Sidney Black, an electric piece of acting that ties the action together. But good as Laskin is, he doesn't overshadow his fellows.
As Stella, mother of leading lady Irene Livingston, Mary Gregory makes her acidic lines and equally funny reactions as bracing as an extra dry martini. Cynthia Steele doesn't overdo the daughter's flamboyance, which gives depth and shading to a role that sometimes trips actresses up. The same restraint helps Dan Kern light up the extravagant personality of director Fitzgerald, a stage stereotype that keeps duplicating itself with each generation.
Beth Taylor Hart as Black's wisecracking wife, Edmund L. Shaff as complacent playwright Owen Turner, and Peter Gregory Thomson as Irene's stumblebum stockbroker husband all hit the right notes con brio.
Marjorie Bowman as Irene's wide-eyed biographical ghost writer, and particularly Dugan Savoye as the shy young playwright whose big moment it is, both give rich, impeccable performances, providing detail that is unmistakably of the play's time and mostly gentle humor.
Lou Wagner and Scott Poland are delightful as the Shriners, and Rodger Burt gets a big laugh with one line as Irene's shrinking Scandinavian masseur. Authentic production design by Jim Barbaley and costumes by Jeanne Reith provide a fine framework.
* "Light Up the Sky," West Coast Ensemble, 6240 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 1. $15; (213) 871-1052.